Selfish, but able to do good !?

From: Van oost Kenneth (
Date: Sat 15 Nov 2003 - 22:39:44 GMT

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    Can we make of ourselves better moral people !? According to Iris Murdoch that is the main question of ethics. Murdoch wrote about Sartre and existentalism. She will in the end renounce Sartre but will embrace existentalism forever:-
    " the gain of existentalism is that it acts, in any case, as a philosophy where which we can live by/ for ".

    That' s why she rejects the vigirous intellectual culture, which denies ethics all together, or reduces it to a kind of behavioural ethics:- an empiric discipline which describes vaguely how people behave. Murdoch wants just more room for the ' inner- side ' of ethics, thoughts and the pros and cons.

    As an example she declares that mother M is not that keen on her daughter- in- law D. Oh, M finds D a great woman, but she is so bold, so inmature, to informal and uncivilized. But M is a decent person, she never shows her deeper feelings about her daughter- in- law. After a while M asks herself if she still thinks in those ways about D. Maybe it is me, she says. Maybe I am to elitair, maybe I am jealious and she decides to reconsider her feelings about D. She finds that D her bold character is just spontaneous, her immature behavior sincere and her informality cheerful.

    The example shows that the normative judgement about somebody can change without the changing of the charac- ter of the person(s) involved. Murdoch wants to show with this example that the moral standard is not due by how somebody behaves, but just is a result of hers and his thinking. In cases like the above Murdoch argues that the behaviorist never can judge somebody's inner- side because about the inner- side noone can say something meaningful.

    Yes, thus hails the sound of victory, we can improve ourselves! But how ? By better watching closely, like the mother- in- law did. By paying attention to people and to things surroundering us:- " unsentimental, unselfish, objective attention ". Noone will argue against Murdoch view that a better and deeper attention leads to a fuller picture of somebody. But the conclusion that the new picture is a better one per sť is not a convincing one and is also in conflict with Murdoch initial point that man is by nature selfish. More study about man will reveal the details of that selfishness. By nature, man is maybe a selfish being, only within culture he may develop himself as being an attentive and unselfish person.

    ( The sovereingnty of the good and Metaphysic as a guide to morals)

    Daan Roovers/ translated out of Dutch by Kenneth Van Oost, November 2003

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